By Jessica Glenza
Luis is just 14 years old, but he already has an exhausting, dawn-till-dusk job. Last summer, he started working in tobacco fields in North Carolina.
Even though Luis is just a child – too young to buy cigarettes – it is legal for him to work here in the US.
The job pays about $7.25 per hour.
Monday through Saturday last summer, when he was not in school, he rose at 5am, dressed in long sleeves, jeans, boots, gloves, a hat and a plastic poncho, and waited for a van to drive him to fields as far as an hour away. He came home around 7pm. This is a typical schedule for laborers in this tough and dangerous job.
Workers in tobacco are vulnerable to heat sickness, in temperatures which regularly reach 32C (89F); they risk injuries from sharp objects; and, if the Trump administration has its way, children will return to using the most toxic agrochemicals.
Then there is the plant itself. Tobacco naturally contains water-soluble nicotine. This makes morning dew or overnight rain a vehicle for huge doses of nicotine. Workers are regularly exposed to six cigarettes’ worth of nicotine per day, one study found. This can result in acute nicotine poisoning, called green tobacco sickness, characterized by nausea, vomiting, headaches and dizziness.
“I wanted to help my mama,” said Luis. He wanted to work, he said, “to get school supplies, so she doesn’t have to waste money”. Luis is the son of a cervical cancer survivor. He started to work when his mother, a waitress, was too ill to hold a job. (The Guardian has changed the names of workers and their families in this report.)
“It’s heavy work, very hard,” said Luis’s mother. But, she said, “there’s no choice”. Children need to help buy “clothes, shoes, their own things, things they need”. She said it would be “better when they were older, but he started because I had cancer ... He was helping me as well as my older son.”
In the US, lax laws and an informal economy in which landowners are removed from hiring laborers allow teens to work growing and harvesting tobacco. This contravenes some tobacco companies’ own policies, which often prohibit children from performing hazardous work.
“There’s a lot of 14-, 15-year-olds working in the fields,” said Antonio, a 19-year-old who has done so since he was 15, a history confirmed by his mother. “They need money or they want to work,” Antonio said.
Altria, parent company of Philip Morris USA, which produces Marlboro cigarettes, said growers were “prohibited from hiring those less than 16 years of age, and may only assign hazardous duties to workers 18 and older. Both are above the legal requirements. We require parental consent for those under 18 working in tobacco farming.”
The company also said it reviewed all growers every three years. In 2017, it found only one case of child labor, in which a farmer hired two 15-year-olds.
“While the individuals were no longer employed by the grower, the contract requirements were reviewed with the grower to strengthen their understanding of the minimum age requirement,” the company said. The company also said it had hired third-party assessors to monitor labor conditions.
Miguel Coleta, director of sustainability for Philip Morris International, said the company had been “making progress in tackling complex labor issues on farms supplying to PMI and our standards exceed US in many areas”.
“Challenges remain, and PMI continues to work with Verité and the Farm Labor Practices Group on systemic issues associated with child labor, grievance mechanisms to protect workers’ rights and to achieve meaningful improvements on the ground,” said Coleta.
In 2015, PMI adopted a new leaf-buying model in the US, and it now buys through the third-party leaf buyers Alliance One International Inc and Universal Leaf North America. At the time, Human Rights Watch said the move would improve labor conditions on US farms.
The Guardian interviewed several teens, parents, and labor organizers for this story. They described a picture in which child labor was commonplace. However, many said they depended on their children’s income to make ends meet. Many of those interviewed also work in other crops, including picking cucumbers, peppers or other vegetables.
“It’s the fact that we have to do it, because there is no alternative,” said Laticia Savala, a labor organizer with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (Floc) in North Carolina. Floc does not support outlawing child labor in fields, because organizers feel it would harm families who depend on children’s income. However, needing the money does not lessen the harm.
“What mom wouldn’t want their kids studying [rather] than working in the fields?” asked Savala. “You’re forced into doing something.” If labor conditions on farms “were better, probably child labor wouldn’t exist”.
The world’s largest tobacco-producing countries span the globe. They include Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Malawi, Pakistan and the United States.
Together, North Carolina and Kentucky produce 70% of the 700m pounds of tobacco grown in the US each year. Only 0.04% of US farmland grows tobacco, but the United States is still an international juggernaut, the fourth-largest producer in the world.
North Carolina is just one part of a global supply chain that feeds cigarette makers with tobacco leaf. However, the value of tobacco farming is dwarfed by the value of the global tobacco products. Tobacco farming was worth $19.1bn in 2013. Once leaf is manufactured, marketed and branded, tobacco products were worth $783bn the same year.
North Carolina’s farmers employ mostly Latin American workers, who toil in fields owned by white, ageing farmers. The US does not grant agricultural workers collective bargaining rights and workers are sometimes undocumented. Workers are vulnerable to wage theft, exploitation and dangerous working conditions.
Because children work in an informal economy, there is no data on how many might work in fields in summer months, or even when they should be in school. A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) was the first in recent memory to ignite debate about child labor in tobacco in the US. The advocacy group followed up the report in 2015, and found little had fundamentally changed in fields.
“If you appear younger than 16, they’ll ask,” said 19-year-old John about children working on the fields. “But otherwise, no,” they don’t ask. Many contractors, one mother said, encouraged children to lie about their age.
Attempts have been made to regulate tobacco growing in the past. In 2012, the Obama administration attempted to make it illegal for children younger than 16 to work in tobacco. But the Department of Labor backed down after Republicans falsely argued the measure would prevent children from working on family farms.
At the state level, as recently as 2017, the Democratic Virginia delegate Alfonso Lopez tried to introduce a bill to bar child labor on tobacco farms. He was blocked by Republicans.
“If this was your kid, would you be OK with having them work in this job?” Lopez asked at the time as the bill was shelved. “Would you? I don’t think you would. So why is it OK for kids you don’t know to do this job?”
When criticism of child labor on US farms reached its peak in 2014, Philip Morris International hired a company to audit its supply chain. It found children working in hazardous conditions on 16% of the US farms it visited.
However, auditors concluded: “The root cause of many labor related issues in the US is the lack of sustainable, reliable workforce exacerbated by poor US immigration policies.”
The US has signed an international human rights convention meant to protect children “from economic exploitation” and work likely “to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development”. To that end, it encourages trading partners to meet these standards, and publishes an annual report on the “worst forms of child labor” around the world.
One country singled out in the report was Malawi, visited by the Guardian earlier this year as part of an investigation, where children “continue to engage in the worst forms of child labor, including in the harvesting of tobacco”, the most recent report by the US Bureau of International Labor Affairs said.
The tobacco industry, through its Eliminating Child Labor in Tobacco Growing Foundation, agrees “in principle” children should be prohibited from hazardous work, “particularly the use of of machinery and agrochemicals by children in tobacco farming”.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, is hoping to further deregulate farm labor. Rules put into place after the 2014 HRW report are being rolled back by the US Environmental Protection Agency, which is examining whether children should again be allowed to work with dangerous pesticides on farms.
“I’ve worked in the field as well; it’s very difficult. For a young person it’s worse,” said Antonio’s mother, a 37-year-old with three sons who works behind the counter of a rural convenience store. Teens often prefer farm work to other work, she said, “because they’re given jobs despite their age”.
Dominance of American tobacco has waned in recent decades, as the tobacco supply chain has globalized. This and the deregulation of US tobacco price controls has encouraged consolidation. Where in 1978 there were 188,000 tobacco farms, today there are around 4,200.
“A lot of times they’re underage and they lie and say they’re 16 or 17, but they’re actually 13 or 14 years [old],” Antonio’s mother said. “It’s hard, but there aren’t any more options.” She said claims that child labor was not happening on tobacco farms were “a lie”.
Published on The Guardian on June 28, 2018
Southern Poverty Law Center sues private prison company that uses forced labor of detained immigrants in Georgia to boost profits
CoreCivic, Inc., a private prison company under contract with Stewart County, Georgia, to house individuals detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is forcing detained immigrants to work for as little as $1 a day to clean, cook, and maintain the detention center in a scheme to maximize profits, according to a class-action lawsuit the SPLC filed against the company today.
Detained immigrants at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia who refuse to work are threatened with solitary confinement and the loss of access to basic necessities, like food, clothing, products for personal hygiene, and phone calls to loved ones, in violation of federal anti-trafficking laws, according to the lawsuit.
Similar lawsuits have been filed in California, Washington, Colorado and Texas, challenging private prison companies’ work practices.
“CoreCivic is placing profits above people by forcing detained immigrants to perform manual labor for next to nothing, saving millions of dollars that would otherwise provide jobs and stimulate the local economy,” said Meredith Stewart, senior attorney for the SPLC. “CoreCivic is padding its pockets by violating anti-trafficking laws.”
The “Dollar-a-Day” program creates a lucrative profit scenario for CoreCivic: Detained immigrants are forced to purchase basic necessities from CoreCivic’s commissary, and the primary way to fund their purchases is to participate in the work program that is necessary for the operation of the facility. These jobs include providing basic functions at the facility like cooking and cleaning, work for which CoreCivic would otherwise have to hire and pay outside employees.
Plaintiff Wilhen Hill Barrientos is an asylum seeker from Guatemala who has been detained for 33 months while his case is pending. When he arrived at Stewart Detention Center, he was faced with a difficult decision – either work for nearly nothing or lose access to basic necessities, safety and privacy.
Refusing to work would mean that Barrientos would not have enough money to pay for costly phone calls to his family, and that he would likely be moved from a two-person prison cell to an open dorm that has few bathrooms, round-the-clock lighting and frequent fights; or that he would be placed into solitary confinement.
“When I arrived at Stewart I was faced with an impossible choice – either work for a few cents an hour or live without basic things like soap, shampoo, deodorant and food,” Barrientos said.
He chose to work to live with some privacy and maintain access to the commissary.
“If I didn’t work, I would never be able to call my family,” said Barrientos, who works in the kitchen, cooking meals for up to 2,000 people each day.
For his work, Barrientos receives at most $4 to $5 per day for six to eight hours of work; approximately 50 cents per hour. Since Stewart has no paid kitchen staff, officers usually require Barrientos to work seven days a week, even when he is sick. Barrientos was sent to medical segregation for two months after he filed a grievance for being forced to work while he was sick.
In 2014, current and former detained immigrants who were forced to work at private detention centers began to file class-action lawsuits alleging violations of federal and state labor laws.
The SPLC filed the lawsuit against CoreCivic in conjunction with the Law Office of R. Andrew Free, Project South, and Burns Charest LLP.
Published on SPLC on April 17, 2018
The Trump administration is preparing to withhold tens of millions of dollars from the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, cutting the year’s first contribution by more than half or perhaps entirely and making additional donations contingent on major changes to the organization, US officials said.
Donald Trump has not made a final decision but appears more likely to send only $60m of a planned $125m first installment to the UN Relief and Works Agency, said the officials, who were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
Future contributions would require the agency, which faces heavy criticism from Israel, to demonstrate significant changes in operations, the officials said, adding that one suggestion under consideration would require the Palestinians to re-enter peace talks with Israel.
The state department said on Sunday that “the decision is under review. There are still deliberations taking place.”
The White House did not immediately respond to questions about the matter.
The administration could announce its decision as early as Tuesday, the officials said. The plan to withhold some money is backed by the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and defense secretary, James Mattis, who offered it as a compromise to demands for more drastic measures by the UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, the officials said.
Haley wants a complete cutoff in US money until the Palestinians resume peace talks that have been frozen for years. But Tillerson, Mattis and others say ending all assistance would exacerbate instability in the Middle East, notably in Jordan, a host to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and a crucial US strategic partner.
The US is the agency’s largest donor, supplying nearly 30% of its total budget. The agency focuses on providing healthcare, education and social services to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either fled or were forced from their homes during the war that led to the establishment of Israel in 1948. Today, there are an estimated 5 million refugees and their descendants, scattered across the region.
Eliminating or sharply reducing US aid could hamstring the UN agency, putting great pressure on Jordan and Lebanon as well as the Palestinian Authority. Gaza would be particularly hard hit. Some officials, including Israelis, warn that it might push people closer to the militant Hamas movement, which controls Gaza.
The US officials said any reduction in assistance could be accompanied by calls for European nations and others to help make up the shortfall.
The US donated $355m in 2016 and was set to make a similar contribution this year. But after a highly critical 2 January tweet from Trump on aid to the Palestinians, the state department opted to wait for a formal policy decision before sending any of the first $125m.
Trump’s tweet expressed frustration over the lack of progress in his attempts to broker peace.
“We pay the Palestinians HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect,” he wrote. “But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”
Although Trump referred to all US assistance to the Palestinians, the contribution to the UN refugee agency would be the first to be affected.
Three days after the tweet, at a White House meeting on 5 January, senior national security officials try to find a way forward. Led by representatives from the state department and Pentagon, all but one of the members of the policy coordination committee agreed to continue the funding, officials said.
The lone holdout was Haley’s representative, who insisted Trump’s tweet had set the policy and the money must be cut off, the officials said. The meeting ended in a stalemate.
The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, then weighed in, telling his cabinet he agreed with the critique of the agency, which he said perpetuates problems and should cease operating in the region.
Netanyahu and other Israelis accuse it of allowing its facilities to be used by militants. They have also complained that some of its staff are biased against Israel.
Netanyahu suggested transferring the agency’s budget to the UN high commissioner for refugees, which aids refugee matters everywhere in the world. It was not immediately clear whether any withheld US assistance would be shifted.
Netanyahu’s position, coupled with Haley’s firm opposition, led Tillerson, with the support of Mattis, to propose the $60m compromise, the officials said.
Trump, who last year upset the Palestinians by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announcing plans to move the US embassy to the holy city, was said by one official to have expressed cautious backing of the compromise.
Published on The Guardian on January 14, 2018
By Inimai Chettiar, Director, Brennan Center's Justice Program
& Udi Ofer, Deputy National Political Director and Director of Campaign for Smart Justice, ACLU
For decades, politicians competed to see who could push the most draconian criminal justice policies. Jeff Sessions's announcement this month that he would authorize federal prosecutors to go after pot even in states where it is legal seems ripped straight from that playbook. But the “tough on crime” attorney general may be in for a surprise. In 2018, it turns out, demagoguery about crime no longer packs a political punch. In fact, support for reform may prove to be a sleeper issue in 2018 and 2020.
This would be a big change. Candidates most prominently began to compete on crime in the tumultuous 1960s. Richard Nixon won with ads showing burning cities and scowling young men, ads crafted by an unknown aide named Roger Ailes. Ronald Reagan launched a “war on drugs.” George H.W. Bush won in 1988 with notorious ads telling the story of Willie Horton, who was allowed out of prison under a weekend furlough program. Bill Clinton in 1992 bragged of his support for the death penalty. These chest-thumping themes were echoed in hundreds of campaigns down the ballot each year.
Politics driven by fear of crime had direct, destructive social costs. Today, with just under five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has nearly 25 percent of its prisoners. Black communities bear the brunt, with one in four Black men serving time during their lifetimes.
Over the last decade, a bipartisan movement has arisen to push back and revise criminal justice policy. Throughout 2016 it made real strides. Black Lives Matter and advocates brought national awareness. The Democratic and Republican parties included reducing imprisonment in their platforms — a stark reversal of past policy. Every major candidate for president — with the exception of Donald Trump — went on the record supporting justice reform.
Then came the startling rise of President Trump. In his inaugural address, he warned of “American carnage” and rampant crime. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had killed the bipartisan sentencing reform bill as a senator. Now, at the Justice Department, he is piece-by-piece dismantling his predecessors’ efforts to reduce federal imprisonment rates. This has chilled the artery of many politicians once eager to support reform efforts in Washington.
For Trump and Sessions, it seemed, it was still 1968. They are waging traditional scare politics. But something unexpected happened on the way to the backlash.
Lawmakers in blue and red states alike pressed forward with reforms. In 2017, 19 states passed 57 pieces of bipartisan reform legislation. Louisiana reduced sentences. Connecticut modernized bail. Georgia overhauled probation. Michigan passed an 18-bill package to reduce its prison population.
And in the 2017 elections, candidates won on platforms that proactively embraced justice reform. In Virginia, for example, gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie defined his campaign by running modern day “Willie Horton” ads against Ralph Northam for restoring the right to vote to former prisoners, and branded him as “weak” on MS-13. Voters handed Northam a sizeable win. In deeply conservative Alabama, Doug Jones campaigned on criminal justice reform. Trump repeatedly attacked Doug Jones as “soft on crime.” But Jones beat Roy Moore.
Urban politics have been transformed, too. District attorneys campaigning on reducing imprisonment are winning across the nation, most recently in Philadelphia. Justice reform proved a powerful organizing issue among the young and in communities of color.
There’s a reason that candidates who embrace a criminal justice reform platform do well. Ninety-one percent of Americans support criminal justice reform, with two in three Americans (including 65 percent of Trump voters) more likely to vote for candidates who support reducing imprisonment. An even higher percentage support an end to mandatory minimums, and 64 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization (including 51 percent of Republicans).
All of this creates a real political opening for politicians ready to act with just a modicum of courage. If Democrats want to demonstrate care for Black communities, they should campaign on ending mass incarceration. Polls show this is a winning issue for Republicans too. Trump and Sessions lie far out of the mainstream. At the federal level, candidates can support the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act and the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act. At the state level, they can support ending imprisonment for many crimes, shortening sentences for others, reforming drug laws, turning felonies into misdemeanors, and ending cash bail.
To be sure, the public still worries about crime. After the police protests, conservatives claimed that a “Ferguson effect” was causing police to pull back, leading to a reversal of long-term trends toward greater public safety. But new statistics show that that spike was just that: a temporary twitch upward, with crime headed back down in 2017. And states over the last decade have shown crime and incarceration can be reduced together.
For decades, like death and taxes, tough-on-crime politics seemed as if it would always be with us. Crime scare ads have lost their potent power. Criminal justice reform turns out to be a political winner.
Published on ACLU on January 15, 2018
Alva Campbell was supposed to die on Nov. 15. That was the date chosen by the State of Ohio, which had convicted and condemned Mr. Campbell for murdering a teenager, Charles Dials, during a 1997 carjacking in Columbus.
Inside the death chamber that morning, prison officials spent more than an hour searching Mr. Campbell’s arms and legs for a vein into which they could inject the lethal drug cocktail. They comforted him as they prepared to kill him, providing the 69-year-old with a wedge pillow to help with breathing problems related to his years of heavy smoking.
After about 80 minutes, they gave up and returned Mr. Campbell to his cell, where he sits awaiting his next date with death, now set for June 5, 2019.
The pathetic scene was a fitting symbol of the state of capital punishment in America in 2017, a vile practice that descends further into macabre farce even as it declines in use. Mr. Campbell would have been the 24th person put to death last year. That’s less than a quarter of the 98 executions carried out in 1999.
The number should be zero. As the nation enters 2018, the Supreme Court is considering whether to hear at least one case asking it to strike down the death penalty, once and for all, for violating the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments.
Whether the justices take that or another case, the facts they face will be the same: The death penalty is a savage, racially biased, arbitrary and pointless punishment that becomes rarer and more geographically isolated with every year. In 2017 the total number of people sitting on death rows across America fell for the 17th straight year. In Harris County, Tex., the nation’s undisputed leader in state-sanctioned killing, the year passed without a single execution or death sentence — the first time that’s happened in more than 40 years.
Still, Texas was one of just two states — Arkansas is the other — responsible for almost half of 2017’s executions. And nearly one in three of the nation’s 39 new death sentences last year were handed down in three counties: Riverside in California, Clark in Nevada and Maricopa in Arizona.
It would be tempting to conclude from this litany, which is drawn from an annual report by the Death Penalty Information Center, that capital punishment is being reserved for the most horrific crimes committed by the most incorrigible offenders. But it would be wrong.
The death penalty is not and has never been about the severity of any given crime. Mental illness, intellectual disability, brain damage, childhood abuse or neglect, abysmal lawyers, minimal judicial review, a white victim — these factors are far more closely associated with who ends up getting executed. Of the 23 people put to death in 2017, all but three had at least one of these factors, according to the report. Eight were younger than 21 at the time of their crime.
More troubling still are the wrongful convictions. In 2017, four more people who had been sentenced to death were exonerated, for a total of 160 since 1973 — a time during which 1,465 people were executed. In many of the exonerations, prosecutors won convictions and sentences despite questionable or nonexistent evidence, pervasive misconduct or a pattern of racial bias. A 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences extrapolated from known cases of wrongful convictions to estimate that at least 4 percent of all death-row inmates are wrongfully convicted. Against this backdrop, it would take an enormous leap of faith to believe that no innocent person has ever been executed.
This page has long opposed the death penalty, and would continue to even if the penalty’s application were completely free of bias and error. That is an unattainable goal, as should be obvious by now. Perhaps this explains why Americans, whose support for capital punishment climbed as high as 80 percent in 1994, have increasingly lost their appetite for state-sanctioned killing. Support is down to around 55 percent, its lowest level in 45 years.
The rest of the developed world agreed to reject this cruel and pointless practice long ago. How can it be ended here, for good?
Leaving it up to individual states is not the solution. It’s true that 19 states and the District of Columbia have already banned capital punishment, four have suspended it and eight others haven’t executed anyone in more than a decade. Some particularly awful state policies have also been eliminated in the past couple of years, like a Florida law that permitted non-unanimous juries to impose death sentences, and an Alabama rule empowering judges to override a jury’s vote for life, even a unanimous one, and impose death.
And yet at the same time, states have passed laws intended to speed up the capital appeals process, despite the growing evidence of legal errors and prosecutorial misconduct that can be hidden for years or longer. Other states have gone to great lengths to hide their lethal-injection protocolsfrom public scrutiny, even as executions with untested drugs have gone awry and pharmaceutical companies have objected to the use of their products to kill people.
Last summer, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested that the death penalty would eventually end with a whimper. “The incidence of capital punishment has gone down, down, down so that now, I think, there are only three states that actually administer the death penalty,” Justice Ginsburg said at a law school event. “We may see an end to capital punishment by attrition as there are fewer and fewer executions.”
That’s a dispiriting take. The death penalty holdouts may be few and far between, but they are fiercely committed, and they won’t stop killing people unless they’re forced to. Relying on the vague idea of attrition absolves the court of its responsibility to be the ultimate arbiter and guardian of the Constitution — and specifically of the Eighth Amendment. The court has already relied on that provision to ban the execution of juvenile offenders, the intellectually disabled and those convicted of crimes against people other than murder.
There’s no reason not to take the final step. The justices have all the information they need right now to bring America in line with most of the rest of the world and end the death penalty for good.
Published on The NY Times on December 31, 2017
By Peter Edelman
In the United States, a system of modern peonage – essentially, a government-run loan shark operation – has been going on for years. Beginning in the 1990s, the country adopted a set of criminal justice strategies that punish poor people for their poverty. Right now in America, 10 million people, representing two-thirds of all current and former offenders in the country, owe governments a total of $50bn in accumulated fines, fees and other impositions.
The problem of “high fines and misdemeanors” exists across many parts of the country: throughout much of the south; in states ranging from Washington to Oklahoma to Colorado; and of course in Ferguson, Missouri, where, in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, revelations about the systematic criminalization of the city’s poor black residents brought these issues to national attention.
As a result, poor people lose their liberty and often lose their jobs, are frequently barred from a host of public benefits, may lose custody of their children, and may even lose their right to vote. Immigrants, even some with green cards, can be subject to deportation. Once incarcerated, impoverished inmates with no access to paid work are often charged for their room and board. Many debtors will carry debts to their deaths, hounded by bill collectors and new prosecutions.
Mass incarceration, which has disproportionately victimized people of color from its beginning in the 1970s, set the scene for this criminalization of poverty. But to understand America’s new impulse to make being poor a crime, one has to follow the trail of tax cuts that began in the Reagan era, which created revenue gaps all over the country.
The anti-tax lobby told voters they would get something for nothing: the state or municipality would tighten its belt a little, it would collect big money from low-level offenders, and everything would be fine.
Deep budget cuts ensued, and the onus of paying for our justice system – from courts to law enforcement agencies and even other arms of government – began to shift to the “users” of the courts, including those least equipped to pay.
Exorbitant fines and fees designed to make up for revenue shortfalls are now a staple throughout most of the country. Meanwhile, white-collar criminals get slaps on the wrist for financial crimes that ruin millions of lives. Though wealthy scofflaws owe a cumulative $450bn in back taxes, fines and fees from the justice system hit lower-income people – especially people of color – the hardest.
“Broken windows” law enforcement policy – the idea that mass arrests for minor offenses promote community order – aided and abetted this new criminalization of poverty, making the police complicit in the victimization of the poor. Community policing turned into community fleecing. Enforcing “quality of life” rules was touted as a way to achieve civic tranquility and prevent more serious crime. What it actually did was fill jails with poor people, especially because those arrested could not pay for bail.
Budget cuts and the new criminalization have inflicted other cruelties as well. Under “chronic nuisance” ordinances created by underfunded police departments, women in some poor communities can be evicted for calling 911 too often to seek protection from domestic abuse.
Public school children, particularly in poor communities of color, are arrested and sent to juvenile and even adult courts for behavior that not long ago was handled with a reprimand. The use of law enforcement both to criminalize homelessness and to drive the homeless entirely out of cities is increasing, as municipalities enact ever more punitive measures due to shortages of funds for housing and other services.
In addition, low-income people are deterred from seeking public benefits by threats of sanctions for made-up allegations of benefits fraud. As elected officials have moved to the right, laws designed to keep people from seeking assistance have grown more common. Budget cuts have also led to the further deterioration of mental health and addiction treatment services, making the police the first responders and jails and prisons the de facto mental hospitals, again with a special impact on minorities and low-income people.
Racism is America’s original sin, and it is present in all of these areas of criminalization, whether through out-and-out discrimination, structural and institutional racism, or implicit bias. Joined together, poverty and racism have created a toxic mixture that mocks our democratic rhetoric of equal opportunity and equal protection under the law.
A movement to fight back is showing signs of developing. Organizers and some public officials are attacking mass incarceration, lawyers are challenging the constitutionality of debtors’ prisons and money bail, judicial leaders are calling for fair fines and fees, policy advocates are seeking repeal of destructive laws, more judges and local officials are applying the law justly, and journalists are covering all of it.
The Obama administration’s Department of Justice stepped into the fray on a number of fronts. Ferguson was a spark that turned isolated instances of activism into a national conversation and produced numerous examples of partnerships between advocates and decision-makers.
Now we must turn all of that into a movement. The ultimate goal, of course, is the end of poverty itself. But as we pursue that goal, we must get rid of the laws and practices that unjustly incarcerate and otherwise damage the lives of millions who can’t fight back. We must fight mass incarceration and criminalization of poverty in every place where they exist, and fight poverty, too.
We must organize – in neighborhoods and communities, in cities and states, and nationally. And we must empower people to advocate for themselves as the most fundamental tool for change.
Published on The Guardian on November 6, 2017
By Hilary O. Shelton and Lauren-Brooke Eisen
The early 1990s were a turbulent time for many cities and towns in America. The national violent crime rate had been steadily ticking up, increasing 40% from 1984 to 1992, as the murder rate climbed 20% between 1984 and 1993, disproportionately impacting communities of color. Congress reacted by passing the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, better known as the “1994 Crime Bill,” which restructured federal grant funding. It inspired states to build more prisons.
The number of people behind bars increased by almost 50% between then and now, from 1.5 million to 2.2 million people. African Americans bared the brunt of that tremendous growth, making up 13% of the U.S. population but 37% of the nation’s prisoners. Meanwhile, crime rates are down. Budgets are tight. Prisons are overcrowded with inmates who are serving time for non-violent crimes. And we are beholden to an often-unjust justice system built on policies past, which highlights and exacerbates racial inequality in America’s criminal justice system. In short, we are paying dearly to waste human lives.
But a new bill introduced Wednesday by Rep. Tony Cárdenas of California aims to reverse that decades-long trend. The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act, which Senators Cory Booker and Richard Blumenthal introduced this summer in the Senate, sends federal funds to states that reduce crime and incarceration together. It is the only solution proposed on Capitol Hill that would help reign in state prison populations (where 87% of the country’s prison population is housed), while reducing vast racial disparities in the system and ensuring hard-earned public safety gains over the past quarter-century are not lost. Senator Blumenthal said on Wednesday, “the federal government can encourage more enlightened and effective action” at the state level with this bill.
For decades, through both the 1994 Crime Bill and other programs, the federal government has sent out grants to states and cities on autopilot to fight the “war on drugs” and to aid other anti-crime, public-safety initiatives. States and cities often seek these additional “bonus” dollars and are willing to modify policy to get them. It’s one reason why almost all the funds ultimately allocated by Congress from the 1994 bill were used by states to build more prisons and lengthen prison sentences.
This new measure is designed to redirect that flow of funding — to upend that incentive. It would authorize $20 billion in incentive funds over 10 years to states that cut their prison population by 7% every three years and keep crime near record lows, or even lower. This can be done either by creating a new grant — or by directing current funds — to support state activities proven to reduce crime and incarceration at once. Lately, some states are already on a path to do this; the bill will encourage and could speed up further progress, promising federal dollars for successful and reform-oriented changes in policy.
But federal sentencing reform alone will not eliminate mass incarceration. The federal government must work with states to drastically cut the number of prisoners behind bars. Under this new act, states would be free to choose their best path to achieving these common goals, building on local expertise rather than just a federal mandate. If fully applied, this would result in a 20% reduction in the prison population nationwide in a decade, a result of local expertise at the state level. Certainly, Republicans and Democrats should be able to get on board with a program that improves public safety while reducing our expensive and inefficient incarceration system.
Not only is this possible, it’s played out across the country. In the last 10 years, 27 states have reduced incarceration and crime together. It’s a politically and geographically diverse group. They include states in the Northeast (New York and New Jersey), the West (California and Colorado) and the South (Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas). Texas alone has closed eight prisons in just six years, while crime rates remain at historic lows. Similarly, under Governor Andrew Cuomo and due to a reduction in the state’s prison population, New York has closed 13 state prisons.
To be sure, local and state reform is key to making a dent in America’s prison population. But this bill would set a tone from the top and directly help states continue already successful efforts. It would dramatically reduce prison populations, lessen the justice system’s disproportionate impact on communities of color and maintain hard-won declines in crime over the last 20 years. Passing this bill would send a message from the federal government that our society is capable of responding to crime in a way that is not only effective, but also humane.
Published on TIME on October 4, 2017
(...) the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 36, an unconstitutional nationwide ban on abortion at 20 weeks, prohibiting safe and legal abortion without regard for the health of the woman. This ban not only violates longstanding Supreme Court precedent established in Roe v. Wade, and reaffirmed just last year in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, but it contains only the narrowest exceptions for survivors of rape or incest and prohibits doctors from providing care at the risk of federal criminal penalties (including five years in prison).
Said Maya Rupert, Senior Policy Director at the Center for Reproductive Rights:
“Anti-abortion leaders in Congress didn’t miss a beat in their crusade to compromise women’s health and safety. One week after the Senate attempted yet again to gut women’s health care and repeal the Affordable Care Act, the House has wasted no time in advancing a bill to ban abortion with arbitrary limits. This bill strips women of their autonomy while showing extreme disregard for their lived experiences and the unique circumstances they may face during a pregnancy.
“Time and again, the Supreme Court has affirmed a woman’s constitutional right to abortion prior to viability. No gestational ban has ever survived this judicial scrutiny. The Senate should refuse to consider this harmful and blatantly unconstitutional bill.”
H.R. 36 is an unconstitutional ban on virtually all abortions after 20 weeks post-fertilization, regardless of whether the pregnancy would harm the woman’s health or the fetus has severe abnormalities that would make survival unlikely or impossible. The bill threatens doctors with fines and a harsh penalty of up to five years in prison and imposes additional hurdles that interfere with the patient-provider relationship and further delay care.
The legislation passed today includes a medically unnecessary, mandatory 48-hour waiting period for rape survivors by requiring adult patients to obtain medical care or counseling from a state-licensed counselor or victims’ rights advocate for their assault at least two days prior to receiving abortion services. Minors who have become pregnant after rape or incest are likewise required to report the crime to law enforcement or child protective services before receiving an abortion.
An earlier version of H.R. 36 passed the House in 2015, and was blocked in the Senate that same year.
Bans like H.R. 36 have been challenged in court and do not pass constitutional muster. The Supreme Court last year refused to review North Dakota’s ban on abortion as early as 6 weeks of pregnancy and Arkansas’ ban on abortion at 12 weeks of pregnancy had been struck down by lower courts. In 2014, the nation’s highest court refused to review Arizona’s ban on abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy after it had been declared unconstitutional, and every federal court that has reached a decision on a pre-viability ban has blocked the rule from taking effect.
Published on The Center for Reproductive Rights on October 3, 2017.
By Karen L. Cox
While the mass incarceration of men has dominated the discussion of policing and prisons over the past few years—and rightly so—there’s been a recent shift in thinking about incarcerated women, and not a moment too soon. According to a report by the Vera Institute, women’s incarceration has increased a startling 14-fold since 1970. Like their male counterparts, these women are also overwhelmingly women of color.
Despite the shocking increase in their numbers, however, the specific issues and needs of female prisoners have largely gone ignored. In particular, as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month begins in the U.S., it’s worth noting that the vast majority of women in prison are single mothers who have been victims of domestic and/or sexual violence.
These concerns have rarely been part of prison-reform discussions, and yet this fact is typical of the history of women’s incarceration in our country.
Criminal justice in the American South for decades following the Civil War was meted out unjustly, disproportionately affecting African Americans, regardless of gender. And, thanks to a unique historical record created by women in a Mississippi prison in the 1930s, it’s possible to see that the similarities between women’s incarceration then and now is significant. In both periods, women were more likely to be incarcerated for nonviolent crimes than for violent ones. Likewise, many of the incarcerated women in both cases were victims of domestic and sexual violence whose income was vital to their family household.
The prison in question was a state penitentiary in Jim Crow Mississippi, better known as Parchman. Of the more than 2,000 prisoners there in the mid-1930s, between 60-80 were women, of which only a handful were white. That small group was responsible for sewing all of the convict uniforms and the mattress ticking, canning the food that was eaten by everyone, picking cotton, and even slaughtering cows and hogs that fed the prisoners. There, women left a record of their lives in the form of blues poems and songs. In the early 1930s, Delta journalist David Cohn visited the women at Parchman and provided them with pencils and paper on which they provided details of their lives, their criminal trials and incarceration.
In “My Prison Blues,” for example, Fannie Walden wrote about some of the very same issues that concern incarcerated women today. She laments being separated from her child in the lyric “One poor little daughter in the cold world behind/for home and her love, my heart doth pine.” A later verse explains the reason she is in prison was due to a situation of domestic violence: “The only trouble I’ve given the land/Was defense of myself—just killed one man.”
Nor did the violence stop at the prison gates. Women at Parchman also wrote about the violence they experienced while in prison, sexual and otherwise. One woman, identified only by the initials M.A.V., describes another female prisoner’s child, the product of sexual violence at the hands of the white supervisor of the women’s camp: “Coreanna’s got a baby and he’s got blue eyes, must be the Captain’s, he ain’t none of mine.”
Another prisoner detailed the physical violence at the hands of the man she calls the “Ricketiest Superintendent.” In her “penitentiary blues,” she describes the brutality of prison and thoughts of refuge in the lyric, "Got the ricketiest superintendent, Got the worst sergeant on the farm, and if I make it to the bushes, my sergeant can't do me no harm."
Fast-forward to 2017 and we realize that little has changed in the treatment of women in over one hundred years. The vast majority of female prisoners remain women of color. They continue to be victims of sexual violence. Their children are being raised without them.
The difference is that this is not Jim Crow Mississippi. Today, this situation extends well beyond the South. Nationally, as the Vera Institute Report shows, the overwhelming majority of female prisoners are held for nonviolent offenses and most are women of color. Among them, 86% are victims of sexual violence.
The difficulties faced by female prisoners are now attracting the attention of politicians. On July 11 of this year, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, or the “Dignity Act,” on behalf of himself and Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Richard Durbin.
The bill aims “To improve the treatment of Federal prisoners who are primary caretaker parents.” To that end, the Dignity Act calls for a more generous visitation policy for incarcerated mothers. If passed, it would also prevent restraining pregnant women by shackling them or placing them in strait jackets, among other forms of restraint. Prisons would provide parenting classes and trauma-informed care for those who need it, as well as make basic healthcare products like tampons available. Gynecological care would also be mandatory.
Since July, the Dignity Act has only advanced as far as the Senate Judiciary Committee where no further action has been taken. Given the stark realities of life for incarcerated women, action cannot come soon enough. Our nation can and should do better than to allow Jim Crow-like prison policies to continue unchecked.
Published on TIME on October 2, 2017
🔎 U.S.; Travel ban; Refugee quota
By Deborah Campbell
When President Trump announced that he was slashing refugee admissions to the United States to 45,000 – the lowest in decades – the first person I thought about was 18-year-old Roqayah Mohammed.
I met Roqayah in 2007 when Syria wasn’t the war-torn place we know today. It was a haven for more than a million Iraqi refugees, largely the professional class, who had fled the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq.
That was the war that gave the world Isis (whose leadership met in the mid-2000s in a American-run prison in Iraq called Camp Bucca, the only place on the planet where Islamic radicals could spend limitless time conspiring with secular ex-Baathists), and destabilized the entire region in ways that are far from over.
Back then Roqayah was a precocious green-eyed nine-year-old living with her parents and older brother in Damascus. Her mother, Ahlam, a “fixer” for foreign correspondents, was my translator and friend.
Roqayah was five when the war came to their village near Baghdad. She remembers how, overnight, a happy childhood surrounded by a loving family was supplanted by tanks, helicopters, American soldiers, fear. Her mother worked as a translator for the Wall Street Journal and later for the US Civil-Military Affairs, which made her a target of militias. After being kidnapped and ransomed, Ahlam fled with the family to Syria. It would be another three years, and a whole other story, before they were resettled in the US.
When she arrived in Chicago in 2008, age 10, Roqayah knew only four words in English: yes, no, grandmother and fish. But in the north Chicago neighborhood where the family landed, she swiftly made friends. None shared a mother tongue, so English was their lingua franca.
Within a year she was fluent, and I could no longer converse with her mother without Roqayah understanding every word. Within another year her grades went from Ds to As. She moved into Honors and AP classes, and went from seeing herself as a refugee to mentoring other refugees. She wrote her college application essay on the theme of “Adaptation”.
She is grateful to many of those who had helped her family adapt. There was the resettlement agency, Heartland Alliance, who paid the rent on an apartment for the first few months while they found their feet, showed them how to use public transit, where to buy groceries.
There were the individuals who helped her parents make connections and find work – refugees pay billions more in taxes than they cost to resettle, information this administration has tried to repress. One woman even paid for Roqayah to have the same SAT coach as her own kids; the end result was six university acceptance offers.
In light of the growing climate of fear, what would she say to those who want to restrict refugees and immigration?
When she was recently asked, she said she didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but the truth was a nuanced one: the same country that had given her a new life had destroyed the old one, and that of countless others who will never have the opportunities she has had.
“It is a responsibility of the US to accept refugees because a lot of the stuff that is happening is because of them – because of the government.” She paused. “Sorry to be so blunt.” She reminded us that what refugees spend their time worrying about is not how to kill people or blow things up, but how to learn English and find a job: “They are trying to figure out what ‘organization’ means, or how to get on a bus.”
The new travel ban, and the record low cap on refugee admissions, have nothing to do with where terrorism originates in any case. If they did, the ban would include countries like Saudi Arabia.
But the more difficult truth is not only that the ban is bad, or that refugee quotas under President Obama were better. The US lets in very few refugees, even at historic highs. From 2008 to 2011, 80,000 refugees a year were resettled; this was reduced to 76,000 in 2012, and 70,000 in 2013, where it remained until it was raised to 85,000 for fiscal year 2016. By contrast, Canada, with a 10th of the US population, took in 46,000 refugees in 2016. That would mean 460,000 in the US. And even that is negligible compared with Germany.
The best way to solve the refugee crisis, of course, is not to make refugees in the first place. But it’s much too late for that. What is needed now is generosity and humility, especially as most of us in North America are descended from exiles who were often fleeing dire circumstances.
Stephen Miller, the pitiless architect of this administration’s anti-refugee policy (he would like to lower the cap much further), is the descendant of refugees from Stalin. In other words, his own ancestors were once in much the same position as Roqayah.
Published on The Guardian on October 1, 2017.